Policy Brief 5: Democratising the African Union


The African Union (AU), the homegrown continental body, is spectacularly ill suited in its current form, to secure quality democracy, inclusive development and peace in Africa.

The AU needs to be dramatically restructured, refocused and re-energised to provide leadership to African countries in a terrifyingly volatile, complex and uncertain world. The AU desperately needs new ideas.

The African Union’s lethargic responses to the deadly Ebola crisis in West Africa and Boko Haram’s bloody surge in northern Nigeria, and perpetually empty rhetoric about the integration of African integration economies are just the most obvious recent examples of how ineffective the continental body is.

The AU’s admirable aspirations for the continent set out in its Agenda 2063, which calls for eradicating poverty in one generation through inclusive growth and sustainability, will remain a distant dream unless the AU is transformed.

Africa still needs the AU, but one more relevant for our times  

Africa’s future prosperity still lies in individual countries on the continent, pooling their markets, development efforts and attempts to seriously build democracy. African countries now desperately need the stability, security and the independence to make policies freely that only a continental ‘pooling of resources and cooperation’, can provide.

However, the current leadership of the AU is too discredited, the institution too toothless and the rules for membership too lenient. In order to reverse this dispiriting situation, African countries will have to bring new energy, ideas and leaders to make regional and continental institutions work.

Furthermore, we need new objectives and new concepts and even new words that are appropriate for our times. The ways in which many African leaders and institutions generally think about closer integration is outdated. The idea of pan-Africanism that all African countries will come together into a happy family is unworkable, unachievable and simply outdated. To continue with these ideas will mean that Africa is unlikely to reach its full potential in this generation.

Set minimum requirements for AU membership 

The AU has no minimum entry requirements, whether in terms of the quality of democracy or the prudence of a country’s economic management. Because membership of the AU is largely voluntary, countries like Zimbabwe, could still be members even if their governments have appalling human rights records, and spectacularly mismanage their countries’ economies and political systems. This means that Zimbabwe and all the rogue regimes in Africa can all be fully-fledged voting members, determining the outcomes of crucial decisions of the organisation.

African political unity must be selective. The basis of a revamped African Union must start with a small group of countries that should club together who can pass a double ‘stress’ test based on quality of a democracy and the prudence of their economic governance. When the final decision was made on the structure of the AU in 2001, there were two options on the table to determine membership criteria: one option argued for selective membership based on meeting certain democratic and development criteria. The second option argued for all African countries to be members, regardless of whether they are led dictators.  This latter option was pushed by some of Africa’s ‘big men’ led countries, including Libya’s Gaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe. Clearly, this was a lost opportunity.

The AU could follow a three-track system, a core group of countries that meets the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria, and a second track of countries who did not make the cut in democratic and economic management terms, but which are serious to pursue the new objectives of the AU. The rest, the third group of countries, would be the assortment of dictatorships – which should be shunned, until they introduce democratic governance. The second track countries should then be assessed on an annual basis to see whether they are ready yet to enter the first track of countries.

Of course, there are not many African countries that would currently pass the first test. Stricter rules will mean that the AU will start off initially as a small club of countries. At best, perhaps only South Africa, Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde, Namibia – and then only if the criteria are, in some cases, flexibly applied.

Secondly, the second group of African countries, which do not meet the minimum democratic and economic governance criteria, but which are genuinely on their way to meet these, would then be set targets to reach before they are allowed into the elite group. Achievement of these targets would then be rewarded with increased investment. The third group of African countries which have the very minimum levels of democratic governance and of prudent economic management would also be set targets, with deadlines to meet at least the requirements to be allowed into the second tier nations. Those countries scoring badly – and showing unwillingness to reform, should be sidelined until they shape up.

Underpin AU on human security and democracy, not state security and autocracy

Continental and regional institutions’ peace and security policies like the now disbanded Organisation of African Unity (OAU), have tended to focus on state security, rather than human security.  This ‘wrong-headed’ principal is at the heart of African peers shielding despots such Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from criticisms, rather than coming to the aid of their desperate citizens.  For the former OAU, African presidents were more important than the continent’s people. This has remained unchanged under the new AU and regional institutions.

African solidarity must not be based on leaders, but on values, such as democracy, social justice, clean government, ethnic inclusiveness and peace, protecting ordinary Africans, against disease, violence and hunger, and prudently managing economies for the benefit of the continent’s people. African countries will need to cede some of their sovereignty.

The AU’s Charter will have to be changed from protecting the sovereignty of individual countries to protecting the security of Africans themselves. The African principle of non-interference in the affairs of neighbours still partially informs the AU which has been very reluctant to intervene forcefully in misgoverned nations.

Many African countries have still not adapted limited democratic institutions, restrictive laws and official powers inherited from colonial days to more relevant ones. In many others where democratic institutions, such as parliaments and human rights commissions, have been set up, these are often in name only. In fact democratic political cultures are absent in many countries.

There is not much provision for ordinary African citizens to have direct influence on AU decisions. The AU and African leaders were themselves very reluctant to have civil society, let alone their voting citizens to scrutinise their institutions and plans. So far, the AU continental and regional institutions are glorified clubs of leadership chums, mostly dictators for that matter. Referenda could be introduced whereby ordinary citizens, electorates and civil groups vote on crucial policies of continental and regional institutions.

A revamped AU could play an important role in constructing a new democratic political culture across the continent’s 54 officially recognised states, the two unrecognised ones and its 10 territories[1].  Importantly, the fact that most African countries are so ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse means that democracy and inclusive development must be the glue of any nation-building process.

Part of the revamp of the AU must be the establishment of real, effective pan-African institutions, such as a continent-wide Supreme Court and a Constitutional Court. These courts should be independent and have jurisdiction over prescribed areas in member states, so that when tyrants like Mugabe emerge, they can no longer depend on the acquiescence or support of fellow rogues whose records are not much better or even worse. Member countries of revamped AU and regional institutions will also have to establish credible democratic institutions: independent judiciary, electoral commissions and human rights bodies.

A revamped AU must compel all its members to scrap all repressive laws. Most African countries, just like Zimbabwe, have ‘insult laws’ that outlaws criticisms of the president.  A citizen from a member country must have recourse to the AU, if that citizen is brutalised by his or her government. Gender equality must be the basis of all business of the AU. Every member country will have to strictly adhere to a two-term limit for their Presidents. There will have to be a transparent procedure to impeach presidents or leaders who start off as democrats, but turn into tyrants, so that we do not repeat having the likes of Mugabe, again.

Political parties in AU member countries getting state funding should adhere to minimum internal democratic rules, this we will prevent one-man parties, and tribal parties. The AU must also set new minimum standards of conduct and operation for ruling and opposition parties in Africa in members countries, most of them are too undemocratic, corrupt, and tribally based – to lead the continent to a new era of quality democracy and prudent economic management.

Members of a revamp AU must harmonise economic, democratic and foreign policy governance

The countries that pass the test for acceptance into the elite tier of AU membership should harmonise economic policies, foreign and democratic governance. These top-tier African countries could be the core of the first African-wide set of industrial policies and long-term economic development strategy aimed to lift African countries up the industrial value chain.

Every country should then set democratic and developmental targets for, say, five years. Every member of the AU would draw up a developmental plan, in consultation with the AU. At the heart of these developmental plans must be for African countries to diversify, from raw materials to beneficiated products. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rightly said recently, Africa is over-relying on unprocessed commodities along with insufficient investment in manufactures and infrastructure; and this old pattern is being replicated in its trade with new emerging partners, such as China and India, which is unlikely to translate into widespread job-creation, poverty reduction and economic prosperity.

The AU will then monitor the implementation of these plans to ensure they are met. The movement between these countries of skills, people and goods could be eased. Countries, which adhere to these democratic and economic management criteria, could be rewarded with new investments, development projects and support, and those that do not, excluded, until they improve.

Special Africa investment funds could be set up, for example pooling the proceeds from commodities, to finance social and physical infrastructure across the continent. Proceeds from such funds would then be distributed on the basis of the level or willingness of nations to reform economies and democracies. This fund can then be use for targeted development in underdeveloped areas of the countries that make the criteria.

It is not that countries that fall in the poorest governed groups should be sidelined. Funds, resources and support could be given to them, based on strict criteria of adherence to democratic and prudent economic governance rules. The AU of core countries will then adopt joint positions on foreign policy, and will act as a bloc in multilateral organisations, international treaties, and on common issues, such as the climate change.

The AU can also directly negotiate with, say, China when trade deals are struck to come up with the most beneficial trade deals for individual countries. The AU will then negotiate beneficial trade agreements for African countries as a unified trade bloc.  A core, standing African peacekeeping force could be set up from members of the core group, and those of the second group, through the principle of ‘flexible’ union.


By compelling AU members to follow a set of good economic and social policies, the citizens of African countries who are outside the AU – perhaps because their leaders refuse to adhere to minimum good governance rules – will also have a clear set of standards against which they can measure their governments’ performance. Citizens of non-member countries would also be able to use compulsory AU good governance criteria to put pressure on their governments to deliver. This would also energise many African nations as their citizens would be able to measure their governments’ performance – whether members of the AU or not – against credible new continental-wide good governance norms.

Africa needs an urgent movement to transform the AU, to make it relevant to the complex African and global challenges. A more relevant AU would be able to provide better leadership during these dangerous uncertain times in Africa and the world.


African Union (2014) Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. Addis Ababa: AU Publications, August

Gumede, W.  (2014) South Africa in BRICS. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers

Gumede, W. (2013) Remaking the African Union. Policy Brief, Foreign Policy Centre, London

Gumede, W (2012) Time for a radically new African Union. Open Space, Open Society Institute of Southern Africa (OSISA), September

[1] As is recognised by the AU.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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